On Tisha B’Av, Mourning Tragedy and Building the Jewish Future
In honor of Tisha B'Av, Rabbi Joshua Mikutis reflects on a trip to Latvia that brought him face-to-face with Latvian Jews' tragic history and hopeful future.
By Rabbi Joshua Mikutis - Jewish Learning Designer, JDC Entwine | July 29, 2020
Shoes caked in mud, I trudged along, deeper and deeper into the Riga forest. It was a gloomy day, rain fell unforgivingly, and the cold November air made me huddle further into myself. I was leading a group of Jewish young professionals on JDC Entwine’s Frances Z. Eizenstat trip, where we visited the Jewish communities and sites of Riga and Budapest; on our last day in Riga, we stopped at Rumbula forest where over 70 years ago, around 24,000 Latvian Jews and 1,000 German Jews were brutally murdered by Nazi forces and paramilitaries. The grimness of the site cannot be overstated.
The 13 of us stood together, as our guide told the story of how the Jews were led here and then butchered and buried underneath the ground where we were standing. Standing there filled me with horror, and I struggled to lead in a moment when I was overcome with emotion.
As I stood there, my mind turned toward Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem. The holiday has come to represent something beyond just those traumas: It is understood to be the most tragic day of the Jewish calendar. The list of other catastrophes that occurred on this date are too numerous to name, but they include the beginning of the First Crusade, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and the AMIA bombing in 1994, where a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was targeted, killing 85 people.
Like so many Jewish holidays, Tisha B’Av plays with our perception of time. In our commemorations, we read Eicha (The Book of Lamentations), sit stooped and uncomfortably on the floor, and fast, as we consider the ravages dealt to Jerusalem. And yet, we are forced, too, to consider the other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people — always with the frightening thought in our minds … what might be next? We sit in the present, ruminate on the past, and gaze nervously into the future.
For me, the power of Tisha B’Av lies in its intensity. We look deeply and uncompromisingly into the horrors of the past. We sit in our sorrow — before the fast, the traditional meal is a hard-boiled egg dipped in ashes. There is no sugarcoating of our pain. It is our guest for the 25-hour fast, during which we are instructed to not greet others.
But in the Jewish calendar, not every day is Tisha B’Av. Though it’s far from the only mournful holiday we observe, it occupies just one day in the calendar, serving a critical religious and psychological function: to allow us to acknowledge the unbelievable brokenness of the world and the evils that have stalked the earth. It’s only through this kind of engagement with darkness that we can experience the other joys of living.
For me, the power of Tisha B’Av lies in its intensity.
While standing in Rumbula, I led our Entwine group in Kaddish after our guide completed his narration. But I was eager to add on to his presentation. Jewish stories rarely end; they just leave us with semi-colons and wait for us to pick up the rest.
I started to tell the group about how this site proved to be a critical spot for Latvian Jews during the Soviet period. At a time when their religious identity was forced underground and Soviet Jews struggled for freedom and recognition, Riga’s Jews would come to Rumbula to clean and hold commemorative ceremonies. These heroic activists stood in the same spots where we were, coming to stake a claim both simple and profound: They were Jews. This spot of indescribable pain transformed into a place where they could, in the freedom of the forest, actualize their identity, away from Soviet repression. They stared into the abyss, and though it may have stared back, they went on to build something: both a commemorative site and a new sense of self.
And that process continues to this day. We visited the JDC-supported Riga JCC, a vibrant place of Jewish life that serves toddlers to seniors, and learned about the active community-building efforts taking place throughout the Baltics. In a city that has seen unimaginable strife, we felt the powerful rumbling of Jewish life.
These two stories, first of the massacre and then of the activists and the Jewish future they heralded, coexist incongruously. It does not make for a neat story, but it speaks to something powerful: that in order to cultivate a Jewish future, we must acknowledge the horrors of our Jewish past. If we fail to understand what transpired before us, we wander aimlessly and without meaning.
On Tisha B’Av, we must sit in our sorrow. But we’re not asked to sit there forever. We soak in the sadness for 25 hours, and afterwards, we move forward. Gazing backwards — whether at the destruction of the temples or the Rumbula massacre — allows us to understand the depths of heroism embodied by the Latvian activists and commit ourselves to a just future.
Rabbi Joshua Mikutis is the Jewish Learning Designer at JDC Entwine.